Pretty much every Australian teenager growing up in the 1970’s knew about Countdown. And so, I would wager, did thousands of long suffering parents. Watching the Saturday evening music show became something of a national ritual. It was one of the very few times when we sat down in the same room as our siblings without the petty bickering, hushing our bemused oldies as the familiar intro theme heralded a somewhat shambolic hour long plunge into a sensually tacky world of colour, flashing lights and badly mimed video clips. The visual effects were unsophisticated and crass by today’s standards. The satin flares, lairy costumes and bad haircuts seemed in perfectly good taste at the time. For us Countdown was rebellion, experimentation and the claiming of a world that adults could neither comprehend nor truly participate in. And then there was Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, always looking quietly perplexed by his own creation, yet always dropping names like Madonna, Bowie and Jagger with a schoolboy vitality. He loved what he did, and so too, it seemed, did Australia. We excused Molly his quaint bumbling mannerisms – indeed his shambling presence perfectly complemented the whole tone of the show.
But beyond the crass theatrics and the seminal excitement, there was the music. And the music was new, fresh and like a fever it was catching. Countdown became our musical window to the world, and every Saturday and Sunday evening we were transported; tuned in to a common wavelength that united us. Pretty soon Aussie kids were sporting ABBA T-shirts and taking their lunch to school in ABBA lunchboxes. The girls donning tartan in honour of their idols the Bay City Rollers. For the guys it was KISS. But as well as connecting us with the music scene of the UK and USA, Countdown became the conduit for the emergence of Aussie rock. And it very quickly became clear that Australian musicians could stand on their own merits. Indeed, they could virtually carry the entire show, and more often than not, they did just that. They rapidly became household names courtesy of Countdown – the pop of Sydney’s Sherbet and Melbourne’s Skyhooks. The hard rock of the Angels, AC/DC, Cold Chisel and the Oils. A string of teeny-bopper bubble-gum popsters like John Paul Young, William Shakespeare and Mark Holden. The ladies of blues and soul included Marcia Hines and Renee Geyer. What we were witnessing was the rich musical ‘coming of age’ of our nation, and the Australian music industry blossomed and grew like a vast sprawling evergreen through the seventies and eighties.
The roots of Australian contemporary popular music can be traced back to a largely British and European heritage. This is hardly unusual, given the mass migration of white settlers in the post-war decades. It was European migrants that formed the backbone of Australian music. Pop ambassadors John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John were English-born as were the Bee Gees’ Gibb brothers. The Scots were well represented and many of them still live on today in big name Aussie acts – Barnesy for one still retains his mighty voice!
The Easybeats were an ‘Australian’ band who met in Sydney in 1964. They were the first Aussie rock and roll act to score an international pop hit in 1966 with the anthematic ‘Friday On My Mind.’ Like many popular music groups, theirs was a star that blazed brightly for a short time and then was gone. By 1969 the flame was extinguished, and they disbanded. Their legacy however, lives on to this day. And their place as early pioneers of Australian music remains the stuff of legend.
So who exactly were The Easybeats? Firstly, all five members were born overseas and had recently emigrated with their families from Europe: vocalist Stevie Wright and drummer Gordon "Snowy" Fleet were from England; rhythm guitarist George Young was from Scotland and lead guitarist Harry Vanda and bassist Dick Diamonde hailed from the Netherlands.
George’s younger brothers might be better known to some Australians – Malcolm and Angus formed AC/DC soon after, following in the musical footsteps of their older brother.
The young men who became Australia’s Easybeats met each other in a place called the Villawood Migrant Hostel, where they lived with their families until their parents found permanent homes for them. In a cruel twist, that same hostel has now been converted into the Villawood Detention Centre – a concentration camp incarcerating ‘non-citizens’ whose resident visas have been cancelled and may be deported permanently.
What exactly happened to our nation that in a few short decades those same immigrants that we welcomed with open arms and embraced as our own are today treated as little more than sub-human and left to rot for months, if not years, in places like the Villawood Detention Centre and remote Christmas Island?
The transformation of the old Villawood Migrant Hostel into the current day maximum security Villawood Detention Centre stands as perfect testament to Australia’s changing sentiment with regards to immigrants. As a hostel in the mid-60s it was filled with life – a place of hopes and dreams for European migrants looking forward expectantly to a new life for their young families in the lucky country. In its draconian present day incarnation it houses only grief and despair – its detainee population condemned to endless months; facing the grim prospect of permanent estrangement from their families and the only life they know. The suicides that have occurred there never make the news. Fates are held in the hands of one man who will ultimately decide whether they stay or leave.
With sweeping new powers, that man – Immigration minister Dutton – has deported hundreds of permanent residents in numbers not seen since World War 2. Cases are emerging in the media of non-citizens, who have families here and have lived here since childhood, being deported for a range of minor offences including driving without a license and road rage.
Where then would that have left people like The Easybeats’ singer Stevie Wright – already drug addicted in the early 70’s and charged with housebreaking and arrested for heroin abuse? Or Bon Scott, Scottish-born AC/DC vocalist, who served 9 months in juvenile detention for unlawful carnal knowledge, escaping custody and theft? Or the stream of expatriate European musos who came to the attention of the law?
The Countdown phenomenon could never have happened in our current political climate, and certainly not in the reign of heartless right-wing Immigration minister Dutton – a bitter ex-cop. In 2017, many of those key players of that burgeoning Aussie music scene would be in immigration detention, torn from their families and facing the prospect of deportation. Many ironically would be imprisoned in Villawood Detention Centre, the very same ‘hostel’ where The Easybeats first met many years ago.
In many ways Dutton represents the complete antithesis of what Meldrum’s Countdown stood for. What Meldrum embraced with joy and enthusiasm, Dutton rejects with a dour bitterness. Meldrum was proud of the ‘new Australians’ and was never short of a word of encouragement for our up and coming bands. And in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s we in turn were united by the music they made. In 2017, Dutton seeks only to divide us – seeing simply citizens and ‘non-citizens.’ He too claims to be representative of the national interest and Australian values, and yet he has almost singlehandedly destroyed a spirit which gave rise to 5 decades of music like some sullen, hate filled party-pooper.
Following the release of their international hit ‘Friday On My Mind’, The Easybeats gave an English radio interview, only to be mildly offended when the interviewer referred to them as an English band. ‘We’re Australian!’ they retorted loudly. ‘Three of you are British and two of you are Dutch,’ countered the interviewer, ‘What exactly makes you Australian?’
‘The music!’ they replied in unison.
You’ve been watching Countdown 2017 and this is the day the music died. Goodnight Australia.